Everyone is at now.
FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, Teams, WebEx, Hangouts and that other one your mate uses for his weekly “pub” quiz.
Where video chats were once the preserve of international catch-ups or Sunday conversations with displaced grandparents, they are powering the pulley which has dragged work life into the 21st century.
And while coronavirus may be putting a short-term (hopefully) blockade on face-to-face reunions, this shift in culture is all but certainly permanent. We all have to get used to preening in front of our screens and presenting the best forms of ourselves, just as we would do if we were convening across a table. Without the travel required.
Contrary to newly-popular wisdom, it’s not all about a decent bookshelf, however.
There is a new parlour game of book bingo that has arisen from viewing battalions of experts and politicians on television news in front of libraries of learned material. Find your fun where you can, etc.
But for every home studio that cuts the right impression is one which lets both subject and spare bedroom down. Unforgivably, even some leading politicians (that’s you Matt Hancock) have not been schooled by their PR handlers to establish a screen presence which renders them at their best.
You wouldn’t head into a meeting looking scruffy or slouching in front of a client while peering up suspiciously without direct eye contact. The principle continues online. Make an effort, establish the basics, and repeat to make the right impression.
The Eye Test
You see that green dot or black window at the top of your screen or laptop (or even phone)? That is your audience, and your friend.
Staring at the camera is like looking into someone eyes to build trust and a connection. Not incessantly without any deviation. That’s weird too, just as in real life.
But even though you may have notes elsewhere on the screen or on that increasingly obsolete “paper”, the more you can peer directly towards the other end of the virtual tunnel, the greater the empathy built.
How you position the camera can also make a difference. Ideally, your eyes should be as level as possible with the camera. Sticking a phone on a table and looking down is the worst of all worlds. No-one needs an exploratory tour of your nostrils.
My desktop is a little higher than I’d like but if I’m doing TV down the line from home, I try to utilise my laptop. Perched on a table with two shoe boxes on top, it becomes the perfect height. Professionally framed, it is that step closer to being in a studio with a camera in front (see below).
It’s also worth bearing in mind that most built-in cameras on laptops, phones or iPads aren’t especially high-grade. For the ultimate experience, an external 4K webcam is a valuable notch above.
We’ve all gained insights inside people’s homes courtesy of Covid-19. Like a bad edition of Through The Keyhole with the game given away up front. Being in front of a bookcase may, for academics, provide an assurance. For others, a line of paperback Harry Potters and a bobble head might be a superfluous distraction.
While a little space between your face and the camera is useful (60 cms is a good distance), something within a metre behind will also close off the space neatly.
And of course, dress appropriately. Brush your hair. And, of course, wash your hands.
There is a reason music or radio studios have padded walls and are as compact and soundproof as possible. That removes the echoes and external noise and also centres the volume where it’s meant to be – upping the clarity.
Mumbling in a meeting is an irritation for everyone else and it reduces the effectiveness of whatever the speaker is trying to say. Ditto when you can’t be picked up clearly on your computer microphone, most of which are – and I’m being kind – rubbish.
But while I will opt for either a lapel mic (for video) or directional mic (for audio only) attached to my computer, there are simpler solutions.
Those ubiquitous plug-in headphones with a microphone built-in, given away with most phones, are infinitely better than letting your PC or Mac take control. Or a pair of Airpods. They will pick up your dulcet tones much more sharply.
If nothing else, plug in the headphones. It reduces the echo. But in this brave new world of video conferencing, a pair of wireless, noise-cancelling headphones, with a decent microphone incorporated, will prove a solid investment.
And lastly, be seen! I recently attended a webinar where the principal speaker was a dark silhouette rather than in clear focus. Why? They sat with their back in front of a window, on a sunny day, so were rendered a mysterious blur.
Face the window, or a light, so you can be lit up effectively. There are cheap ring lights available which clip onto phones and computers which can make a significant difference too.
Lastly, look interested and attentive. Smile. Everyone can see you now.
And there is no hiding place.